Top Mistakes Trail Runners Make In Training

Four experienced runners and coaches share their biggest mistakes and lessons learned in trail and ultrarunning

Photo: Getty Images

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“What could possibly go wrong?” 

Whether you’ve been in trail running long enough or you’re just getting started, you have likely encountered no shortage of unexpected challenges. Whether it’s forgetting to pack enough water, running into tummy troubles, or getting lost on-course without a map, there are many aspects of trail running that we can easily overlook. 

A study highlighted in Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop showed that several of the top 10 reasons for DNFs (did not finish) races are preventable, such as nausea/sickness, blisters, and inadequate acclimatization.

To help you recognize where things can go wrong, and how to mitigate future trail catastrophes, we surveyed a handful of top coaches and athletes to share their biggest mistakes made and lessons learned along the way: 

Tyler Andrews, Founder and Running Coach, Chaski; Professional Runner for HOKA

My biggest mistake was obsessing about training numbers like mileage and vert at the expense of just letting the training come to me. Also, generally just thinking too far ahead, on every scale, in a training session, week to week or in a race. Stay in the moment. 100 miles is too much to swallow all at once.”

RELATED: The Connection Between Heart Rate Variability and Mental Health

We can easily get caught up in training numbers and outcomes. Rather than worry about how you’ll ever finish a 50-miler, try shifting your focus to each day or week at a time, and break down your bigger goals into smaller chunks so that training is more manageable. An example might be starting with the goal of running three to four days a week consistently and building up to five or six, incrementally adding a mile or two to your long run each week and 10-15 percent of your weekly mileage, allowing for a recovery or maintenance week every three to four weeks. Celebrating small wins throughout the process is an important aspect that can help us feel more connected to our larger goal at-hand.

Sarah Strong, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Therapist; Running Coach, Microcosm Coaching

“The biggest mistake I made was that I didn’t listen to my body. I didn’t rest and I ignored pain until I developed a full-blown overuse injury (I have had ITBS and multiple stress fractures, including the femoral neck) or illness. My journey was littered with DNFs and DNSs until I started listening to my body and resting. I thought not getting my period was a good thing. I ran when fasted. I overemphasized the mental health benefits of physical exercise and neglected other forms of self care. I ran all of my runs hard and only ran a few runs each week.”

RELATED: How Do You Avoid Burnout? Simple: Rest.

Far too many of us can relate to Strong’s reflections that involved pushing too hard, underfueling, and ultimately harming ourselves in the process. Hiring a coach can be a helpful way to ensure you’re not overdoing it, given the individualized feedback you receive from a trained expert. Remember, there is such a thing as running “too much,” and our mental health deserves as much—if not more—attention than our physical health. Make sure you’re building in rest and recovery days, at least one to two times per week and ensuring you listen to any signs your body gives that a break might be wise.

Sandy Nypaver, Running Coach, Higher Running and Runner for Run Rabbit

Think of everything that can go wrong and have a plan for it: stomach issues, dead legs, aching muscles, eyes getting cold (yes, this is a thing at some races), dry eyes, blisters that hurt with every step, headache, heat exhaustion, becoming cold and wet, the worst chafing imaginable, and more. When you plan for issues, you can be solution-focused rather than problem-focused during the race. Consider that a small blister on the side of your toe might need different treatment than a blister at the bottom of your foot. One might just need a bandaid with KT tape over it and another might need moleskin with a hole cut out to take the pressure off of it. 

Also, consider whether your nutrition plan needs to change for hot temperatures or races at higher altitudes. While I’m a big believer in practicing race-day fueling on almost all long runs, during a race I still think it’s really important to know when to give your stomach a break, and have a back-up nutrition plan.”

There are numerous factors to consider with trail and ultra running, ways that our bodies respond to the elements we put them through. Planning for what could go wrong is, in fact, the best way to anticipate how you will overcome challenges if and when they do arise. Having a solution for various problems—from how you will handle a blister to how you will overcome nausea—will allow you and your crew and pacers to handle these issues with ease, while helping you navigate them with greater adaptability and resilience.

Adam Merry, Professional Runner for Saucony

“Ultrarunners tend to fall into this trap of ‘more is better,’ and that training harder will lead to higher levels of performance. I think we’ve all heard the phrase, ‘work smarter not harder,’ and I think this is particularly relevant if you want to improve your performance. Rather than just running more, take a few minutes to self reflect by yourself about what your areas of weakness are. After you’ve done that, ask a close friend, ideally someone you train with often, what they think. For me, these weaknesses have been taking stock of how my body feels late in races and accessing my performance in workouts and long runs. 

Once you’ve identified some specific areas for improvement, commit to getting the resources and support you need to improve those things. Strengthening your weaknesses will make you a more well-rounded runner and at races, likely lead to greater durability and longevity in the sport, and often leads to better performance. Running more (to a point) can be beneficial but isn’t always the dial we need to keep turning up to unlock better performances.”

RELATED: How To Safely Build Volume

Quality in our training matters far more than quantity. While more miles or volume can be beneficial, it comes with a price if we overdo it for too long or go too hard, day in and day out. As you approach a new training block, consider the areas you are strongest in, as well as areas of improvement. Working with a coach or other professional (nutritionist, physical therapist, sports psychologist, or therapist) can be an excellent way to identify and work on these areas in a collaborative environment that enables you to receive support to perform your best.

While we often focus on the minutia aspects of trail running, the advice above is a reminder that the bigger picture of training plays a critical role. Allow your training to unfold naturally, listen to your body, and don’t worry so much about the numbers. When it comes to being out on course, anticipate potential pitfalls during races, such as stomach issues, blisters, and nutrition strategies for various conditions. Many of the athletes and coaches surveyed mentioned the importance of having a support system, as well—whether that is enlisting the support of a running coach, sports nutritionist, or larger community, it’s helpful to learn lessons from those who have learned them the hard way and can share stories from their journey along the way.



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